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 David's Herculanum


Wexford Festival Opera,  October 26 - November 4, 2016

Photographs by Clive Barda, courtesy of Wexford Festival Opera

Review by Charles Jernigan


  Volcano’s Erupting: David’s Herculanum staged in Wexford

Talk about rarities.  Most opera lovers have never heard of the composer Félicien David, much less his 1859 grand opera Herculanum.  In fact, after an 1868 revival at the Opéra, no one had heard it until it was revived in a concert version and recording in 2015 by the Palazzetto Bru Zane's Centre de Musique Romantique Français' continuing project to revive forgotten French scores from the nineteenth century.  The Wexford production represented the first staged performances in almost 150 years.  David's music was virtually forgotten except for his choral symphony Le Désert, which depicts the arrival of a caravan in the North African desert; in his day it was probably his best known piece.  But he was a writer of much choral and chamber music and a few operas, all except for Herculanum in the lighter mode; his charming Lalla Roukh was revived in Washington and New York by Opera Lafayette a few years ago.  With Herculanum he took on the genre of French Grand Opera with a sprawling four-act work which includes a full ballet and ends with the spectacular destruction of Herculaneum by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C. E. 

The story of Herculanum involves Christian persecution and is basically a black-and-white affair where the Christian couple Lilia and Hélios are good and the pagan queen Olympia and her brother Nicanor are bad.  In fact, Nicanor is so bad that when he is struck dead by a thunderbolt in Act II when he denies the Christian God, he is replaced by Satan himself, who rising from the ground, takes over Nicanor's body. 

The Devil was quite active on the operatic stage in 1859.  Two weeks after David's opera debuted at the Paris Opéra, Gounod's Mephistopheles took the boards in Faust at the Théâtre Lyrique.  The Second French Empire under Napoleon III, was in full swing in 1858, and was strongly supported by the Catholic Church; in turn the "blockbusters" of the Opéra were used to buttress Catholic belief, a cornerstone of the Second Empire.  At the end of Faust the redeemed Marguerite rises to an apotheosis in Heaven at the end of a glorious trio as Mephisto takes Faust to Hell.  At the end of Herculanum as God's vengeance erupts on the wicked, pagan city in the form of a volcano, Satan, showing Olympia the encroaching lava, declares, "Voilà le châtiment!" ("There is punishment!") while the Christians welcome death: "C'est le ciel!  C'est la vie!"    

In the opera's story, the young Christian Hélios forsakes his betrothed Lelia for the pleasures promised by Olympia, who is equated with the pagan gods Venus and Bacchus.  Before the end, however, he returns to Lelia and Christianity.  The moral is clear--Christian simplicity and virtue are good, while pleasure and sensuality are the Devil's work, and will be punished.  In one impressive scene, Satan fires up the slaves to revolt, invoking Sparticus.  Clearly, Napoleon III did not want the working class to rise up, and considered rebellion satanic.  It was ironic, then, that Wexford's production by Stephen Medcalf portrayed the pagans gathered round Olympia and Nicanor as if they were denizens of France's Second Empire instead of ancient Romans.  Nicanor/Satan himself was dressed in military regalia as if he were Napoleon III while the women wore empire-waist dresses.  The Christians, by contrast, were dressed in shapeless dun sackcloth (costumes and sets were by Jamie Vartan).  If David and his librettists Joseph Méry and Térence Hadot intended to boost the regime by emphasizing Christian virtue, Medcalf and Vartan turned that on its political head and associated the bad guys with the Second Empire, although that is hardly a political point worth making some 145 years after the Second Empire fell; only historians are concerned with the corruption and hypocrisy of that period today.

David's music is what must sustain a revival of the piece today, and much of it is very good.  He is a most eclectic composer, and one can hear bits of Rossini, Verdi, Meyerbeer, Offenbach and even a near-quote from Schubert (Der Tod und das Madchen).  There are grand arias in the Italian manner: Olympia's Drinking Song ("Bois ce vin que l'amour donne") and Hymn à Vénus (an aria omitted from the Palazzetto Bru Zane recording because the mezzo was ill at the time of the recording session), Lilia's Credo ("Je crois au Dieu"), Hélios' lovely Romance, "Dans une retraite profonde," and so forth.  Many of these arias morph into ensembles and are punctuated by the chorus.  Best of all the music, to my mind, is a wonderful, instantly rememberable duet in the last act between Lilia and Hélios, "Viens!  La mort, qui nous purifie.". This great, long and supple melody bears the true meaning of the work--death, they sing, purifies us and gives us back our love forever.  As befits a composer well known for his choral music, David's choruses are special too, ranging from bouncy Offenbachian bacchism to the austerity of Gregorian chant or a lovely a cappella chorus sung by the Christians.   

One would love to see (just once) a production of a French Grand Opera as it was meant to be, with great weight placed on spectacle.  David's work, at its premiere, was famous for the spectacular settings and costumes, especially the total destruction of Herculaneum at the end.  Alas, I have never seen such a production and probably never will.  It is just too expensive and probably overwrought in an era which puts minimalist emphasis on the aspect of spectacle in opera.  Wexford's production was largely black and white, with a scrim depicting a realistic volcanic cone (I can't say whether it was really Vesuvius), which bubbled with red lava in the last act.  A cone-like structure dominated the set too, but there was no attempt to recreate the lavish gardens and palaces of Olympia in the ancient city.  A number of abstract gray crosses dominated the hill where the Christians gather.  The black and white and gray worked in the end when red lava (a projection) overflowed on a tableau of ash-covered chorus members lying in poses we all know from the body-casts of those caught in the eruption in Pompeii and Herculaneum.  It was a very effective tableau for David's eruption music, if not quite the grandeur we would have had in 1859. 

Of the singers, Romanian soprano Olga Busuioc as Lilia was the best.  She has a strong voice and good control, and she acts well.  Her Hélios was Canadian tenor Andrew Haji.  Mr. Haji is so large of girth that it was difficult to believe that the wispy Daniela Pini as Olympia would be attracted to him.  His voice had the sweetness of a true French tenor at times, but for the most part he was only adequate in the role.  The same could be said for Ms. Pini as Olympia.  Her "Hymn to Venus" is apparently full of coloratura, but I did not hear it in her rendition.  I think she is supposed to be a Dalila-type character (as in Saint-Saëns' opera), but she was a very staid seductress, both vocally and in her acting, striking poses as the opulent queen from exotic middle eastern lands.  Simon Bailey as Nicanor/Satan was the only well known singer (to me); he was better as Satan than he was as Nicanor for some reason.  The Christian prophet Magnus was sung by Rory Musgrave.  Once again, the super-active chorus excelled all expectation as both lusty pagans and humble Christians.  Jean-Luc Tingaud made a strong case for the score, much of which won Berlioz' praise at first hearing.  It is indeed a score worth hearing, a melodious score with many fine moments, and especially that wonderful duet in the last act, which by itself elevates David to the realm of the masters.



The Team 

Lilia - Olga Busuioc

Olympia - Daniela Pini

Hélios - Andrew Haji

Nicanor/Satan - Simon Bailey

Magnus - Rory Musgrave



Conductor - Jean-Luc Tingaud

Director - Stephen Medcalf

Set & Costume Designer - Jamie Vartan

Lighting Designer - Christopher Akerlind




© Clive Barda/Wexford Festival Opera

Helios and Lelio





© Clive Barda/Wexford Festival Opera

Nicanor and Olympia





© Clive Barda/Wexford Festival Opera

Olympia with two chorus members (Sophie Goldrick and Lukas Zeman)





© Clive Barda/Wexford Festival Opera






© Clive Barda/Wexford Festival Opera




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